A collocation

One little exercise: Ask some people to fill in the blank with an adjective: A ___ SCOT.

Another little exercise: Ask some people (not any of the ones in the first exercise) to fill in the blank with a noun: A CANNY ___.

You’ll get a lot of CANNY for the first and a lot of SCOT for the second. CANNY SCOT isn’t exactly an idiom (each word occurs freely without the other), but the two words have an attraction for one another, collocate naturally with one another. In particular, any number of people have been described (with approbation) as canny Scots:

Adam Smith, the father of economics, was a canny Scot who had a strong belief in free-trade. (link to CNBC of 9/30/11)

From NOAD2 on the adjective canny:

1 having or showing shrewdness and good judgment, especially in money or business matters: canny shoppers came early for a bargain.

2 Scottish & N. English   pleasant; nice: she’s a canny lass.

ORIGIN late 16th cent. (originally Scots)

More detail from the Online Etymological Dictionary, with a dark side to the phrase:

1630s, Scottish and northern English formation from can … in its sense of “know how to,” + –y. “Knowing,” hence, “careful.” A doublet of cunning that flowed into distinct senses. Often used superciliously of Scots by their southern neighbors (and their American cousins).

The Canny Scot is so well known as scarcely to require description. He carries caution, cunning, and selfishness to excess. Deceitful when a purpose is to be accomplished, he is not habitually deceitful. One thing he never loses sight of — his own interest. But of his own interest he is not the most enlightened judge. [“The Natural History of Scotsmen,” in “The Argosy,” December 1865]

Superciliously indeed. But, as I noted above, the collocation is often used positively, with approval, even by Sassenachs and Yankees.

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